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Socrates or Muhammad? Joseph Ratzinger on the Destiny of Reason

Lee Harris

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To the memory of Oriana Fallaci

On September 12, Pope Benedict XVI delivered an astonishing speech at the Uni versity of Regensburg. Entitled "Faith, Reason, and the University," it has been widely discussed, but far less widely understood. The New York Times, for example, headlined its article on the Regensburg address, "The Pope Assails Secularism, with a Note on Jihad." The word "secularism" does not appear in the speech, nor does the pope assail or attack modernity or the Enlightenment. He states quite clearly that he is attempting "a critique of modern reason from within," and he notes that this project "has nothing to do with putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age. The positive aspects of modernity are to be acknowledged unreservedly."

Benedict, in short, is not issuing a contemporary Syllabus of Errors. Instead, he is asking those in the West who "share the responsi bility for the right use of reason" to return to the kind of self-critical examination of their own beliefs that was the hallmark of ancient Greek thought at its best. The spirit that animates Benedict's address is not the spirit of Pius IX; it is the spirit of Socrates. Benedict is inviting all of us to ask ourselves, Do we really know what we are talking about when we talk about faith, reason, God, and community?

For many, it will seem paradoxical that the Roman pontiff has invoked the critical spirit of Socrates. The pope, after all, is the embodiment of the traditional authority of the Church, and the Church is supposed to have all the answers. Yet Socrates was famous as the man who had all the questions. Far from making any claims to infallibility, Socrates argued that the unexamined life was not worth living, and he was prepared to die rather than cease the process of critical self-examination. Socrates even refused to call himself wise, arguing instead that he only deserved to be called a "lover of wisdom."

Read the entire article on the Weekly Standard website (new window will open).

Posted: 28-Oct-06



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